Monday, February 9, 2009

What Is Sustainability And How Sustainable Is That?

If you ask 10 people you'll probably get 10 very different answers. At one end of the crunchy spectrum, you'll get people who say sustainable is taking only 20% of their earth share (about 1 acre) in goods and resources. At the other end on the decidedly delusional end of the spectrum, you'll get someone who says that sustainable is ensuring their hand-scraped mahogany floors are imported from Borneo from only Orangutan friendly and selectively harvested virgin forests. Or even better, the person who buys a new Hybrid car every 2 years when it takes about 6 years to payoff the savings of going from regular gas to hybrid.

I'm somewhere in the middle there.

The real question is, what level of sustainability can I, and all my world neighbors, live with and remain reasonable yet still provide an avenue towards the future?

I've been reading Radical Simplicity, and while I have a whopper of a book review to be posted at a future date, it did make me think more about what sustainability means to me and how sustainable such sustainability is.

Now say that three times fast for a prize!

At either end of the spectrum it is unworkable in the long term for humanity.

Cures for cancer aren't developed in mud huts by people who will only use 1 acre of total global resources. That won't even get them a single box of sterile test tubes. It won't develop new ways to manufacture that use less virgin material, that too must happen in a lab where a few square feet equals that 1 acre of resouces. And people who dedicate their lives to these pursuits aren't going get the education to do that research since each student month of university time equals 1 acre or so.

One piece of immutable wisdom comes to mind. If mankind ceases to use their current technology for 30 years, a single learning generation, then they will never rise again. Ever. Retrace to the Stone age then stop for all of the future of our species.

Why? Sideline digression:

Because getting up to the bronze age, iron age and industrial age calls for surface materials for one. Being able to glean copper from rocks laying around or extract iron at low temperatures from nice chunky surface deposits and a hundred other things. None of that is available and will never be available again. Right now our metal resouces have become so far removed from the surface that it has actually become profitable to glean nodules of magnesium from the very deep sea floor where they precipitate out. If you can imagine how much in resources and ingenuity that takes, then you can see why no stone age person is going to make the transition to any metal age should all our technology and know-how go away via attrition in time.

To pre-argue all the suppositions others could make, I probably could go on for days and pages, but suffice it to say that to get from there to here, stones to space shuttles, requires a large middle portion that we simply couldn't re-create.

Scary, huh?

Sideline digression over!

In the end, if we take our two extremes above, these are the two worlds we eventually get:

One, we totally embrace the back to nature movement and a world we make by hand. If we all did it at once, for a few generations we'dl enjoy the peace of ignorance with our leftovers but the inevitable slide into early death by disease, losing half the children we bear, starvation when a year is bad and all the things that come from a stone age life will happen. A few hundred years and the stories of our lives today will be like magic tales and the people alive then will most certainly not share our idyllic view of their lives. And what happened to the rest of the world during this time doesn't bear thinking about.

Two, we totally embrace development. Humans being what they are, it is almost certain to lead to a world as bad as the one from the first choice. In this Rush Limbaugh/Sean Hannity Cash Is King world, no fictional dystopia could really depict what we'll probably wind up with and the results beggar description, but surely a world unfit to live in save for the very few fortunate ones is not out of the question. And in the end, what happens to them?

For me, who is somewhere in the middle, I'd prefer we look to the future with hope and reason and grit our teeth when development goes through times that seem wasteful and learn from the mistake not to do it again.

Our species may struggle through this delicate period and we are faced with the bad effects of changing things where we shouldn't have and a population that behaves more like locusts than custodians, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. Change our individual ways but always have the next year and generation in mind as well as the next development technologically. Support that which achieves the goal of a better future and eschew that which uses resources for no real purpose. Raise our children in nature and to appreciate it, while ensuring they know as much as they can get into their heads educationally and let them be scientists without prejudice.

In short, I would take a third choice: To think well and hard before we leap, with every leap we take, but never be afraid of the jump. Work to anticipate the consequences of everything we change and then forge ahead.

So where is it that people like me, and maybe like you, can make a difference without sabotaging our future? Again, what is sustainability in our small part of the world?

I think it means waste not, want not in its purest form. The 3 R's in today's catchy terms but with a little more thinking than a 30 second TV spot gives.

Perhaps I'm getting a bit preachy here, and I do apologize. The word sustainable gets bandied about so much with so many different meanings that the importance of the word is getting lost in hyperbole and advertising and political infighting. And I wanted to get out there what I thought and even more importantly, find out what others think. So, what do you think?

I'd really like to know how you define sustainability and where you think you are at in the spectrum.


Aimee said...

This is a fascinating post. I'm sending my brother here, because we've been talking about this a lot. (he's got imported Italian marble countertops; I have tile laid by the guy who built this farmhouse, 50 years ago.)
I'm afraid I tend towards deep pessimism, as far as the long term goes, and by long term, I mean about 200-300 years. I think the human population is in for a severe "downward correction," and if I were twenty years old today, I would think long and hard before I had any kids. Wow. that's a bummer right there. So what does sustainability mean to me? Well, I think in terms of creating safety for the next few generations of my family - since I already have kids and will presumably have grandkids.
We are well off (checked out your global rich list!) but I can't leave them the kind of fortune that will insulate them from the turmoil to come. So what can I do? Get less dependent on a failing system. Teach them to 1) grow and preserve their own food,
2) produce their own power from sun, wind, waste products, 3) take care of their own health to a reasonable degree. To that end, we started a small farm which, with enough practice and elbow grease, is fully capable of providing most of our food needs. My husband built a biodiesel processor, and next year (or the year after that) a windmill is in the works. I realize I'm thinking extremely locally here, and that my solutions for my family are not going to do a whole heckuva lot toward saving the world... but as I said, where the world is concerned I'm not feeling too jolly.

Don said...

what a challenging post! I read it and re-read it and am still digesting. Thank you for adding fuel to my fire!

I find that my third graders are at an age when they can think about things other than webkinz and sustainable life styles are a subject we discuss at different levels on a regular basis.

I want to grow 50% of our food this year, but am not sure if I can. But it is worth a try!

fullfreezer said...

Great, thought provoking post. I am, I think, somewhere in the middle as well. Having just watched the new president's first press conference, I'm not exactly hopeful that things will turn around soon. I do see too many people who are entitled, the 'takers' who don't care about the cost, either personally or in the bigger picture (my brother is one of those, SIGH).
I guess my take on sustainability is just that, to determine what of my actions are doable for the long haul, 100 years or so. I'm by no means perfect. Like Don, we have discussions about our lifestyle, 2 of 3 children are on board for a move to an acreage (now if the housing market would just cooperate) and we are also aiming for producing and preserving 50% of our food this year.
Maybe I'm being pessimistic but I do fear that things are going to get worse before they get better.

Shiloh Prairie Farm said...

Great post, it gives me a lot to think about. Also thank you for visiting/following my blog. I am glad I stopped by yours, great blog.

Anonymous said...

Makes you think, huh?
I know exactly what my sustainability is. We don't buy what we don't need. We live within our means. If we don't have the money to pay for it right then, we don't need it.
We build our home,barn,chicken house,etc.. with our own hands. Most of them from trees we cut here and saw on the sawmill,here. We plant, freeze, can, and preserve all the food that we can manage.
I have all that I need. It is not fancy and may not be all that I want at times, but it is all that I need. Love, food, shelter, water, and clothing.
Just plain substaining ingredients for life.
Very good post.
Have a great day.

MeadowLark said...

Saw you at FullFreezer's.... glad I did. This was a great post and full of stuff that makes me go hmmmmmmmmm. (Always am important thing for me to do)

Am I sustainable? No. Am I doing better than some and worse than others. Yup. But every little bit helps, so I just keep on keeping on.

Peace to you.

ChristyACB said...

Great comments all! I wish I had some of these *before* I wrote the post :)

GA Farm Woman...I'm in awe, plain and simple.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Thanks for revealing the big picture. I don't think most people, including myself really considers how we really can't go 'back to the good old days' again. We really would lose more than we'd even realize.

Our own sustainability is pretty rocky right now due to my injury. I know I'm not going to be able to grow our own food this summer as I'd wanted, as I won't be able to walk and care for the gardens.
And because my husband's cooking skills are basically nil, we are relying on quite a bit of processed food to get us through this rough time. I'm thankful for the convenience foods, but also missing home cooked healthy meals. sigh.

At least we have no debt (except medical bills now). Our house and cars are paid for, and we have no unpaid loans and we own no more credit cards. If we can't pay cash for it, we just don't buy it.

Unfortunately, hubby had to take a job in the city, which is a 30 min drive, which requires lots of gas and is not eco-friendly. But we don't want to give up our quality of life to go move to the city.
Hubby bought a deisel truck with intentions to turn it into bio deisel, but hasn't been able to figure out how to do that yet. And deisel is now more expensive than gas, so we get a big fat zero for self sustainability in the transportation department.

And I have to add that the biggest thing that bothers me about products, even eco-friendly products is packaging. Everything has way too much packaging.

It's so simple for we humans just to casually toss all that packaging in the garbage instead of trying to recycle or find ways to reuse it.
That's going to be one of my focuses this year.


Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

I'm guessing we are somewhere in the middle too. Our farmstead is fairly self-sustaining. We choose to live in our old farmhouse and weatherize and upgrade as we can afford it, instead of tearing it down and building a new, smaller, "green" home.

We maintain our own watershed, heat with wood from our property and grow 90% of the food we need. Some foodstuffs my husbands health problems require we cannot grow. But we firmly believe everyone needs to change their behavior at home, and in their communities and not try and save the world. Then change will come, maybe... I tire of being told to be greener and not eat meat etc, only to find out the person who is saying that is making citrus marmalade in a state where citrus does not grow. That is not sustainable.

Sorry for the rambling here. Great thought provoking post!

Milah said...

Well you had me scratching my head on this one. I've been a country girl so long that I don't think about being sustainable. We try to be good stewards of the land so we can pass it on to the next generation. My husband is the sixth generation from the same family to farm here since 1819, so I guess that's working for us. We farm with tractors and combines (not horses) LOL, so we no-til and rotate crops. We work closely with conservation services to set up programs on managing our soil. As far as gardening....we garden for fun, flavor, and for the love of gardening. Not for financial reasons or organic reasons but because I grew up gardening and canning and I like it. One of the things I love the most about gardening is giving my produce away. I love to see people smile when I hand them sweet corn and tomatos. ;D

spelled with a K said...

Its entirely a matter of consumption.

The first issue at hand is population, one way or another Aimee is spot on. Either we start voluntarily reducing the size of our families or nature will do it for us.

The second is the population uses those resources. We can do so wisely, reusing where possible, being efficient where not renewable, but ultimately there is a finite amount of resources and the laws of entropy state that at some point, a little loss here and there, everything will run out.

On a long enough time scale the sun blinks out, but life here will have long since passed the naked ape stage.

Bottom line IMHO, lets save the nonrenewable stuff for scientific and humanitarian progress. The rest of us will do just fine without plastic forks, use that petrol for test tubes or whatever.

Nothing is permanent, but that doesn't mean we have to use it all up now.

Crunchy Christian Mom said...

Hi Christy, I just found you through Melinda's blog. Very interesting post! For me, sustainability is more about *adding* to our knowledge base, rather than losing the technology we already have.

I do see the "back to the stone age" attitude you write about in the far left sometimes, and I think it's very fear-based. As in, if we don't do this, we're all going to die!

I think I have too much faith in both God and humanity to believe that.

But I also see people who are so absolutely dependent on the system they are unable to even *imagine* life without it. I want my children to be familiar with both worlds, so they can live well and be contributing members of whatever society we end up with next.

risa said...

Sustainability is the same as checkbook balancing. A certain amount of sunlight is captured by the earth every year, peaking in half the year in the northern hemisphere and the other half in the southern. This is utilized by such things as krill in the oceans, and trees and grasses on the portions of the 1/7 of the earth that is land surface -- and only some of that, the rest being non-arable. Non-arable land does store some of the light converted into heat, and returns some of that to the atmosphere, etc.

If the biome uses up about as much energy as it gets -- the carefully regulated Gaian balance posited by Lovellock and Margulis -- then our checkbook is balanced. But if we expand our population on the basis of fossil fuels, we enter into the realm of the soon-to-be-bounced check.

There are going to be seven billion of us soon. Lovelock thinks, IIRC, that we can balance the checkbook (solar-powered agriculture) at about one to two billion people.

Sustainable? Not me, sadly. I'm doing what I can toward living off one acre, but I expect there will be triage.